As Charles Wonderlic drove from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis to his company’s headquarters near Chicago on February 27, 2011, he made the mistake of turning on a sports radio show. The host, as Wonderlic remembers, was talking about Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy’s near-perfect Wonderlic score. Each winter, hundreds of football prospects take the multiple-choice test that claims to measure their intelligence. Results are supposed to be kept confidential, yet they always seem to become media fodder.
In reality, there’s no way anyone could’ve known McElroy’s score. On that day four years ago, as reports of McElroy’s supposed feat trickled out, sealed boxes containing every single Wonderlic answer sheet were sitting in Charles Wonderlic’s car, still unscanned. Wonderlic, Inc. didn’t send an encrypted file of the players’ results to the NFL until March 1. Unsurprisingly, a variety of news outlets ran with the story anyway.1 The months leading up to the NFL Draft feel like election season: Everybody’s trying to dig up dirt on candidates.
“Are we just so starved for information this time of year that we search for anything?” wondered NFL Scouting Combine director Jeff Foster, who only agreed to be interviewed for this article after I assured him that I wouldn’t be reporting individual Wonderlic scores.
In an era when the NFL schedule release is treated like the premiere of the new “Star Wars,” the answer to Foster’s question is a resounding “yes.” We crave even the smallest bits of information about players entering the NFL Draft, even if it’s not meant for our consumption. Forget Foster’s estimate that half the Wonderlic scores he sees in news stories are incorrect. As long as the test is administered at the Combine, media and fans will fixate on it.
“The only person it impacts is the player,” Foster said of a leaked Wonderlic score. “How would you like to be branded unintelligent because you scored a 5 on an intelligence test?”
The story of the Wonderlic, however, is more than just a range of easily regurgitated numbers. It’s the story of how one guy’s American Dream helped shape a new American pastime.
But before we get there, let’s first look at what the Wonderlic purportedly tests. “What we’re measuring is not what you know — that’s what’s being measured on the ACT or the SAT,” said Charles Wonderlic, president and CEO of Wonderlic Inc. “This is really saying, ‘How quickly does your brain gather and analyze information?’” The 12-minute Wonderlic Personnel Test (WPT) features 50 questions arranged by difficulty, lowest to highest. Here’s a sample:
Jose’s monthly parking fee for April was $150; for May it was $10 more than April; and for June $40 more than May. His average monthly parking fee was ___ for these 3 months?
A player’s Wonderlic score is always a number between 1 and 50, and across all professions, the average score is approximately 21. (Systems analysts and Chemists top the scale 32 at 31, respectively.) For pro football players, the oft-cited number is about 20. Tracking down the average scores by position is tricky, mainly because the buttoned-up NFL isn’t interested in sharing any broad Wonderlic data. In an email, Charles Wonderlic said that while his company has published “norms” for other industries, “we maintain the confidentiality of test scores for single organizations. Since the NFL is the only client by which we can produce a quarterback average, we would need their permission to provide this information. Traditionally, the NFL prefers to keep any information about tests scores internal to their own organization.”
Like Wonderlic, Inc., the NFL declined to provide any historical data related to NFL players’ test scores for this piece.
For his 19843 classic “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football,” Sports Illustrated writer Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman did get one anonymous staffer to spill some then-current averages. Offensive tackles led the way at 26, then came centers (25), quarterbacks (24), offensive guards (23), tight ends (22), safeties and middle linebackers (21), defensive linemen and outside linebackers (19), cornerbacks (18), wide receivers and fullbacks (17), and halfbacks (16). And what about place kickers and punters? “Who cares?” the source said.
On its own, a solid Wonderlic score means little. Like a 40-yard dash time, it provides one tiny, standardized data point to employers who presumably take a holistic approach to hiring. But because teams have decades of data on file, they can compare the Wonderlic scores of current college players entering the draft to those of past prospects. “They simply use it to find the extremes,” Foster said. A very low score or a very high score, he added, could lead teams to conduct more testing or look into the prospect more closely.
“Wonderlic gives you an area to investigate,” the late New York Giants general manager George Young told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1997. “If a guy doesn’t have a good score on the test, you don’t say he’s not smart. But you go in and investigate and find out [why he scored low]. You go in and talk to his coach. You find out how he did in school. You find out how he retains. If you think he’s a poor reader and did poorly because it was a verbal test, you give him a non-verbal test.”
The most famous extreme occurred in 1975, when Harvard receiver and punter Pat McInally4 reportedly scored a perfect 50 on the Wonderlic. The Cincinnati Bengals picked him in the fifth round of that year’s draft, but not before his reputed intelligence reportedly scared some teams away. In 2011, McInally told the Los Angeles Times that Young informed him that acing the Wonderlic “may have cost you a few rounds in the draft because we don’t like extremes. We don’t want them too dumb and we sure as hell don’t want them too smart.”
That slightly paleolithic line of thinking, however, wasn’t shared by everyone. “I don’t care about that stuff,” the late Raiders owner Al Davis said in “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football.” “If a kid is street smart, that’s enough. Our coaches’ job is to make a kid smarter. I just wonder if they checked some of the coaches’ IQs around the league, how high they’d score.”
By now, the value of the Wonderlic has been debated so vigorously, especially among NFL executives, that it’s easy to forget that the test wasn’t designed for football.
What it was designed for was something more basic. In the 1930s, Eldon “E.F.” Wonderlic — friends called him Al — was working as the director of personnel at consumer loan provider Household Finance Corporation.5 His employer was looking for a more efficient way to hire entry-level workers at its branches, so it sent Wonderlic to graduate school at Northwestern in hopes that his research would yield a solution to the problem.
E.F. Wonderlic acknowledged that the single best predictor of job performance was previous work experience. But as Charles Wonderlic put it: “How do you predict someone’s performance if they have never done that job before?” The second-best predictor of job performance, E.F. Wonderlic reasoned, was cognitive ability.
“What he found was that different jobs had different cognitive demands ranging from very low to very high,” said Charles Wonderlic, E.F.’s grandson. “And there were really distinct IQs around each job. And the further away you got from that distribution, that’s when you started to experience problems.”
The original Wonderlic Personnel Test was born out of that theory. The first copyrighted version of the test appeared in 1937. Its brevity and simple scoring system, Charles Wonderlic said, allowed virtually any manager to both administer the test and interpret scores. (This is also the likely reason for modern pundits’ love of Wonderlic scores: They’re easy talking points.)
After a stretch at Douglas Aircraft Corporation during World War II, E.F. Wonderlic worked in finance and sold copies of his test. He didn’t advertise, but eventually big companies like Spiegel and AT&T started calling. In 1961, E.F. Wonderlic left his job as president of General Finance Corporation and founded E.F. Wonderlic & Associates. By then, Charles Wonderlic said, an estimated 4 million people a year were taking the WPT.
In the early 1960s, Gil Brandt was a young scout with the expansion Dallas Cowboys. “We were not a very good team,” he told me. His bosses, general manager Tex Schramm and coach Tom Landry, were looking for ways to change that. After doing some research, Brandt said that the trio determined that successful businesses used the Wonderlic and the team should, too. It’s unclear exactly when the Cowboys began testing players. Brandt did say that at some point during the ’60s, he remembers watching spring practice at Northwestern and then stopping by the Wonderlic headquarters to learn more about the company.
By the late ’60s, George Young was an ambitious personnel assistant for the Baltimore Colts. He’d been a public school teacher before transitioning to football full time, and he asked the head of the guidance department in Baltimore for a handful of different tests to peruse. Of the 10 he reportedly looked at, the Wonderlic stuck out, and soon the Colts began using it.
Other teams followed suit by the 1970s, and the NFL eventually began to use it to assess college players en masse. Since 2007, Wonderlic, Inc. staff members have traveled annually to Indianapolis to administer the test at the Scouting Combine.
But the Wonderlic is not without its detractors. Charles Wonderlic estimated that since the test’s inception nearly 80 years ago, it has faced legal scrutiny hundreds of times.
In the summer of 1965, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began operations a year after it was established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Duke Power Company in Draper, North Carolina, began allowing its black employees to work in its higher-paying divisions. Until that point, black employees had only been permitted to work in the low-paying Labor department. Duke Power also instituted a policy that required all new applicants6 to have a high school diploma and pass two aptitude exams: the Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test and the Wonderlic Personnel Test.
These measures crippled the efforts of black workers to advance. At the time, the percentage of white men who both possessed a high school diploma and were able to pass the two aptitude tests was significantly higher7 than the percentage of black men who met the same criteria.
Griggs v. Duke Power Co., a U.S. Supreme Court case argued in 1970, condemned the company’s requirements. Not only did they disproportionately affect black workers, but they also failed to show “a demonstrable relationship” to job performance, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in the majority opinion. He also noted that nothing in the Civil Rights Act “precludes the use of testing or measuring procedures; obviously they are useful.”
While the Wonderlic test has shown itself to be a useful tool for workplace assessment, it has also faced longstanding criticism from those who argue that it is racially and culturally biased. It’s unclear whether the NFL, a league in which more than 67 percent of players are African-American, agrees with those accusations or if the league actually uses the Wonderlic to make personnel decisions.
“How determinative it is depends on the club,” former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi told ESPN.com in 2013, “but it’s usually not ‘the’ determinative factor.”
When it comes to football, is the test a demonstrably reasonable measure of job performance? Because official NFL Wonderlic scores aren’t publicly available, it’s difficult to know for sure, but that hasn’t stopped researchers from attempting to find out. Brian D. Lyons, Brian J. Hoffman, and John W. Michel8 co-authored a 2009 study examining the reported9 Wonderlic scores of 762 NFL players from three draft classes. They found that there was little correlation between Wonderlic scores and on-field performance, except for two positions: Tight ends and defensive backs with low scores actually played better than those with high scores. The researchers surmised that this “could be explained by the notion that performance for these positions entails more of an emphasis on physical ability and instinct” than general mental ability.
Today, the NFL continues to ask potential draftees to take the Wonderlic, although the test now has company. In 2013, the league introduced the Player Assessment Tool, which was developed by attorney Cyrus Mehri, whose report led to the implementation of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, and psychology professor Harold Goldstein. Louis Bien of SB Nation recently reported that the PAT is a 50-minute exam that examines a player’s football smarts, psychological attributes, learning style and motivational cues. “Players are not given a numeric score, unlike on the Wonderlic, so technically there is no way to do poorly on it,” Bien wrote.
Mehri’s hope is that the new test can measure what the Wonderlic can’t. “This kind of levels the playing field from a socio-economic point of view,” he told USA Today. “A lot of guys may be very intelligent, but are not as book-smart as others. Someone may not be the best reader, but they can still be very smart in picking up things.”
As long as the Wonderlic is administered at the NFL Scouting Combine, Foster, the Combine director, will be fielding questions about it — and shaking his head at leaked scores. “It has some value,” he said of the test. “It does not have near the value of what we spend talking about it between February and May.”
After all, a high or low score won’t automatically doom or anoint a prospect. Just ask Greg McElroy. After doing exceptionally well on the Wonderlic in 2011, the New York Jets picked the quarterback in the seventh round of the draft. Before announcing his retirement in 2014, he played in a total of two NFL games.